I was talking to my dramatic soprano friend lately and the exchange went thus:
“Hi Jean-Ronald,” she said in her Icelandic lilt. “A colleague of mine whom you’ve taught asked me for lessons. So I asked him why he does not work with you the next time you are in town, since he has had really good sessions with you. He said your way puts him out of his comfort zone and he thought I would be better for him.”
“I think it’s great that he works with you,” I replied. “I don’t think he will find a better teacher!”
“Well,” she grinned, “I told him not to expect anything different from me, since you are my teacher and that furthermore, getting out of his comfort zone is precisely what he needs! Let’s see how he does!”
“As it turns out, this week is precisely that kind of week in my studio as well” I offered. “Singers have different fears. Yet in the end we all tend to return to the same place: where it feels ‘normal,’ comfortable.'”
“So we spent months doing these exercises, learning to coordinate open throat and true vowel, clear tone and breath flow, breath release and breath resistance…Did you think it would always be about that? Does it surprise you that suddenly I want you to imagine the sound you want to make and trust your body to do it? Does it surprise you that I know longer wish to see your hands hammering at the onset of sound trying to coordinate it? Your hands have nothing to do with creating the sound. When you focus on them, you are not focusing on the elements that need to do the work. Do you ask a piano technician to use a plumber’s wrench to tune a piano? Why then are you using your hands to start the sound?”
“Well, my dear,” she mused, “Don’t you have a saying in America like: You can bring the horse to water but you cannot make it drink?”
“Something like that!” I laughed. “I am terrible with proverbs, so I would not know exactly! What do you mean, exactly?”
“Your students seem dedicated, yes?”
“They seem totally committed?”
“So you are having a tough time understanding why they find it so difficult to make the switch from being handled with baby’s gloves to being required to become professionals like they always professed they wanted to be?”
“Do you have these problems with your professionals? Besides me, I mean,” she grinned a knowing grin!
“That is just the point! The most advanced professionals (you included, silly) not only expect it, but they thrive on it! I was doing an exercise with a great singer lately. She is already singing at very important places. The newness of the exercise made her throat tickle a little. I told her to take a moments rest at which point she burst out laughing and said: ‘I have not felt a little tickle in months! Must mean new skills are coming!’ A few weeks later, new skills came indeed!
“Darling, here’s the difference…” she interrupted. “We pros have been pros a long time! When I sang my first Gräfin Almaviva, oohh so many years ago (I must have been 12, she joked), I brought the audience to tears with Porgi Amor! God knows I did not have nearly the technique I have now (thanks to our collaboration), but it was about the music even back then. We pros have been through 10 thousand incarnations and changes and we are not afraid of yet another ‘dis-comfort zone’. There is not one lesson I have had with you whereby I did not feel out of my comfort zone. Whether it is pushing me to be true to the score and give up old nuances that have nothing to do with the music or your call for technical chance taking. Would I have ever trusted my pianissimo if you did not keep saying to me: “You can sing softer!”
“Should I back off then? Should I take it easy on them?”
“Did you tell me it was OK when I said I have a dramatic soprano’s piano?”
“No, I insisted your pianissimo could be as soft as you wanted it. There was no scientific reason why you could not sing softer, if the structure is correct…” I continued my technical argument then caught her eyes giggling at me as if I were some mad scientist putting together a new creation.
“I remember fighting with you about that one until you said quite strongly: ‘do you trust me to take you there or not?’ That was hard and I had to hold back tears a little. But I knew you were right! It was time to go beyond that fear. I remember clearly. I cracked the note right after that. And you said: ‘that was an honest try.’ The next day I got that Bb and now I don’t even worry about a pianissimo high C. Aida is going to be fun!
“So I should not pull my punches with them right now?”
“You know the answer to that Jean-Ronald! You would not be you if you did. And it is precisely what they need. They will not grow unless they are pushed beyond what feels comfortable! Either they face the challenge or remain forever, like so many others, on the threshold of professionalism, at the door of success, and never enter. You cannot push them in, but you have to show them the door!”
“You are full of wisdom today!” I joked.
“Am I not always!” She chuckled! “What is that other saying? ‘Shit or get off the loo?'”
“Hahahahaha!” I could not contain a loud laugh! “You should have quit while you were ahead, Dear! The saying is:
‘Shit or get off the pot!”
“Hahahaha,” she roared back. I should watch my hearing with such loud sopranos.